Back story blues…

Finding the right approach to revealing a character’s back story is one of the bigger challenges in fiction writing, at least for me. What’s too much? Too little? I learned a lot introducing private eye Andy Hayes’s painful relationship with his parents in The Hunt, as I explain in a guest post in The Rap Sheet, reproduced in its entirely below…

One of the most important tasks when creating a mystery series from scratch is developing your protagonist’s back story. It’s safe to say you should have the basics down first: a straight, male ex-military police officer running a one-person investigative agency; a married gay cop overseeing a cold-case squad; a divorced female private eye with a background in insurance fraud and a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, etc. But where do you go from there? How much should you know about your character’s personal life when starting out? Maybe part of what makes her tick is that she’s widowed and averse to long-term relationships. But is that the whole story? And if there’s more, how do you provide the information without dragging down the narrative?

When I started writing about Andy Hayes, my fictional private eye in Columbus, Ohio, I knew three things for certain: he was an ex-Ohio State quarterback with a sullied reputation from his playing days; he was twice divorced with a son from each marriage; and he lived in German Village, a trendy neighborhood south of downtown, with his Labrador, Hopalong (named for the 1955 Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner, Howard Albert “Hopalong” Cassady).

Beyond these bare-bone details, there was a lot I didn’t know about Hayes. The fun has been in discovering new things as I went along, many of them unknown to me until the day they popped up on the screen as I wrote. For instance, at the end of the first Hayes book, Fourth Down and Out (2014), we learn exactly what led to my protagonist’s downfall as a player. In Slow Burn (2015), I explored the years Hayes spent battling his demons after his football burnout through the back story of an ex-fiancée whose help he must enlist to solve a triple-arson homicide. In both Slow Burn and Capitol Punishment (2016) I reveal more about Hayes’ life growing up in Homer, Ohio (a real town), including an episode with his pig-farming uncle who takes Hayes in after he hits rock bottom and clears his head by forcing him to work with the hogs over one long, hot summer.

By the time I started work on The Hunt (Swallow Press), I knew I was ready to parse out Hayes’ fractured relationship with his father. The early attempts didn’t go well, as I tried to chronicle their troubled relationship in flashback form with several overly long passages. Details about childhood, parents, and traumatic events of yore can paint a richer portrait of your character, but I knew that the line between explication and overload is razor thin. Less is almost always more. Here are examples of the right way to do it, from some of the best in the business:

“Dropping my ashes in my empty teacup, I noticed the arrangement of the leaves. My grandmother would have said it meant money and a dark stranger.” That’s Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, talking about his relative in The Way Some People Die (1951), one of many subtle references to a formative person in Archer’s life—his uncle being another—that Macdonald sprinkled through his short stories and novels. Consider how much it tells us is so few words: his grandmother drank tea and read the leaves afterward, with all that connotes about superstition and prognostication. She also had an eye for things that could mean trouble.

“[Harry] Bosch watched the squadron of helicopters, like dragonflies from this distance, dodging in and out of the smoke, dropping their payloads of water and pink fire retardant on burning homes and trees. It reminded him of the dustoffs in Vietnam. The noise …” So writes Michael Connelly in the opening of The Black Ice (1993). As Connelly observed in an essay for the 2002 book Writing Mysteries, “In a short eight-word sentence, I was able to deliver characterization through the past without disturbing the forward progress of the story.”

Or consider this snippet of dialogue from Bright Futures (2009), the sixth and final book in the late Stuart M. Kaminsky’s series about Sarasota, Florida, process server Lew Fonesca:

“Mind my asking who that is?” asked Greg.

“Victor Woo.”

“And what’s he doing sleeping on the floor of your office?”

“He walked in one afternoon,” I said.

“Why?”

“He killed my wife in Chicago. He feels guilty and depressed.”

“You’re kidding, right?” asked Greg.

“No,” I said.

After re-reading such examples (and more), I went back to the drawing board. I deleted several long flashback passages from The Hunt and with them hundreds of words that, in hindsight, were not just dragging down the narrative but grinding it to a halt at points. For instance: I shrank a three-paragraph-long description of the Parthenon, the bar in fictional Mount Alexandria, Ohio, where Hayes’ father used to drink, down to these four sentences: “I nodded. I knew it. A bar just off the main square. I’d pulled my father out of there more than once, back in the day.”

Relieved of the burden of writing history as opposed to hinting at it, I was free to focus on Hayes’ task at hand—finding a missing prostitute as a serial killer stalks human-trafficking victims. The result, I hope, is a faster-moving story with less baggage and more bang. As Laura Lippman, a genius at the slow unspooling of back story, put it in her 2007 standalone, What the Dead Know:

“A good liar survives by using as little truth as possible, because the truth trips you up far more often.”

 

On writing fiction with an eye toward the screen. . . @RapSheetmag @james_runcie #fridayinterview #crimefiction

“Seeing a novel on screen arouses all sorts of emotions because it is recognizably your idea but yet, at the same time, it has been turned into something new and radically different—involving new characters and plot lines that you never imagined. and it’s this week’.” That’s James Runcie, talking in The Rap Sheet about the adaptation of his novels, The Grantchester Mysteries, and it’s this week’s #fridayinterview

 

 

From technical writer at IBM to full-time author . . . @RapSheetmag @authorsteve #fridayinterview #crimefiction

“. . . being a writer is what I always wanted to do.” That’s Steve Hamilton, talking to The Rap Sheet about his Alex McKnight detective series as well as a forthcoming thriller, and it’s this week’s #fridayinterview.

Electing to tell the truth . . . or fiction. Inside “Capitol Punishment” via @rapsheetmag @ohiounivpress #mysteries #crimefiction

“You can’t write that in your novel. No one would believe it.” You hear that, you wonder if it’s really true, and then the 2016 presidential election breaks out. Capitol Punishment, the third in my series about Columbus private eye Andy Hayes (coming April 15 from Ohio University Press), focuses on a murder at the Ohio Statehouse in the midst of a presidential election year. Since its completion, I’ve been wondering how much farther I could have pushed the envelope given the acrobatics on the real campaign trail this season. In the meantime, here’s a look at how I tackled my own menagerie of politicians, courtesy of the “Story Behind the Story” feature in The Rap Sheet, available here and reproduced below.

 

If only I’d waited a few months.

I’ve had that feeling a lot lately, anticipating the publication ofCapitol Punishment, my third mystery about Columbus, Ohio, private eye Andy Hayes. In his latest outing, Andy gets an up-close and deadly view of Ohio’s quadrennial starring role in presidential politics. Assigned to protect a hard-charging reporter covering a school-funding bill during an election year, Andy finds himself wondering how far a governor with his eyes on the White House might go to keep certain truths from coming to light. It felt like a pretty good plot, if I do say so myself. Then this year’s real election got underway.

I guess the fictionalization of a sharp-tongued Ohio governor facing off against a potty-mouthed billionaire for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have to wait. In the meantime, I’m taking comfort from the current Keystone Cops campaign that my own tale isn’t that far-fetched. “I think there is only one thing in the world I can’t understand, and that is Ohio politics,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Adopting this adage, it was easy to create characters a bit over the top: a pig-farming state Supreme Court justice with a dark secret; a bowtie-wearing chief of staff labeled the “Prince of Dorkness”; and a police detective who bears more than a little resemblance to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of War of 1812 fame. If only I’d thrown in a celebrated brain surgeon who equated universal health care to something worse than slavery. But no, there are limits to suspending one’s disbelief, even in fiction.

In some ways writing a mystery is like building a fire—small flames grow to a climactic blaze, which then diminishes into a denouement of coal and ashes. Achieving this sequence of events requires the proper location, kindling, and of course a spark to get things started. Composing a book with politics at its heart, I had all three in spades. Let’s start with location: Ohio, the best known of the bellwether states. As even casual political junkies know, no Republican has ever won the White House without taking the state, and only two Democrats have done so in more than a century (Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960). Ohio plays kingmaker every four years—maybe “queen maker” this year—because of its purple state attributes: it’s a hodgepodge of cities, farms, and suburbs populated by liberals, moderates, and conservatives with every stripe of pro-union, anti-labor, and libertarian-leaning resident in-between. With eight presidents under its belt, the state is known for a gaze particular to politicians within its borders, what James Thurber dubbed the “Ohio Look”: “The dreamy, far-away expression of a man richly meditating on cheer­ing audiences, landslides, and high office.”

Next, my kindling. For this I focused on two cohorts whose reputation couldn’t be much lower at the moment: politicians and reporters. We’re used to politicians as punching bags. But as a long-time journalist, I’m happy to report that my industry isn’t far behind: we now sit below lumberjacks and enlisted military personnel in rankings of the worst jobs, according to CareerCast’s annual list. Just a few rungs up the ladder, corrections officers and taxi drivers edged out photojournalists and broadcasters. (No word yet about Uber drivers.)

When it came to portraying politicians, in the form of state lawmakers and a governor, I tried to present individuals aiming to do good—in this case, pass a fictional school-funding bill—while engaging in questionable personal and political behavior. I had for my guide a comment attributed to 19th-century New York lawyer Gideon Tucker, an enlarged copy of which hangs in the Ohio Statehouse pressroom, to wit: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” The observation was one of the first things I saw when I joined the press corps in1999 as an Associated Press newsman and was often on my mind during the year Capitol Punishment took shape. My fictional Statehouse bears a strong resemblance to the real thing, with a major exception: I put Democrats in charge of the Ohio Senate, which in reality they haven’t controlled for more than two decades. Although Republicans run everything in the Ohio Legislature these days, split governance isn’t that far-fetched: Democrats made up the House majority as recently as 2009. The partisan split I created through literary license provided the tension that makes murder plausible. As one of my characters notes, “Nothing changes hands at the Statehouse with­out an IOU attached. Don’t ever forget that.”

(Right) Author Andrew Welsh-Huggins

The reporter that my investigator protects, Lee Hershey, is an amalgam of several people I’ve known over the years, and reflects both the old and new elements of journalism. Once a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman, he now runs an online investigative journalism blog that doesn’t have a print product. Like me, he’s as apt to get his news from an app as an actual paper. In early drafts Hershey was an unlikable cynic, and it was thanks to my editor that I painted him with a more realistic brush: a professional skeptic with a patriotic streak who pursues the truth because he loves his state and wants politicians to do the right thing by it. (His womanizing is another matter, and suffice it to say that Hershey’s zipper problem isn’t based on any of my colleagues’ conduct—at least, not that I’m aware of.)

I was getting close to starting the fire. The only thing missing was the spark. Although the fictional legislation up for debate funds schools, the real fireworks involve charter schools, those publicly funded, privately run institutions adored by Republicans and despised by most Democrats. Here was one area where the truth didn’t need much embellishment. Outside of abortion and guns, almost no issue in Ohio has led to more political arguments than these schools, whether the topic is their academic performance, their impact on traditional public schools, or their use (and misuse) of taxpayer dollars. Voila: we have ignition.

Little did I know that, had I waited just a little bit longer, I could have borrowed liberally, so to speak, from even more combustible source material. All I had to do was turn on the presidential debates.